Dr. Eric Eustace Williams, Sept 25, 1911 – Mar 29, 1981
The proud son of St. Anne (near Port of Spain, Trinidad), Eric Williams was a man with the conviction that all men are equal and lived a life dedicated to attaining this. He is best known for his public service, charity, and focus on human rights. He journeyed from schools in Trinidad (Queen's Royal College) to the fabled halls of University of Oxford, in England, where he received a B.A. in 1932 and a D.Phil. in 1938. He excelled in academics and soccer was also in his repertoire.
Despite his extraordinary academic success at Oxford, Williams was denied the opportunity to pursue a career in the United Kingdom. In ‘Inward Hunger’, Williams recounts that in the period following his graduation: "I was severely handicapped in my research by my lack of money… I was turned down everywhere I tried … and could not ignore the racial factor involved". However, in 1936, thanks to a recommendation made by Sir Alfred Claud Hollis (Governor of Trinidad and Tobago, 1930–36), the Leathersellers' Company awarded him a £50 grant to continue his advanced research in history at Oxford.
In 1939 he moved to the United States to Howard University ("Negro Oxford", as he called it in his autobiography), where he was rapidly promoted twice, and attained full professorial rank. He joined the faculty of social and political science at Howard University. While he was at Howard, Williams was appointed to the Caribbean Commission. The Commission was established by the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands to institute and direct economic policies for the development of the Caribbean area. He returned to Trinidad In 1948, as the Commission's Deputy Chairman of the Caribbean Research Council.
Williams embarked upon a mission to educate the general population of the changing times and his vision of the future and did so by presenting a series of educational lectures which made him very famous. The Commission elected not to renew his contract in 1955. These actions lead him to focus on getting into elected office. In one of his speeches at Woodford Square in Port of Spain, he declared that he had decided to "put down his bucket" in the land of his birth.
He renamed the park ’The University of Woodford Square’. Large audiences gathered to listen to many of his speeches and lectures from this ‘scared’ place. His lectures, which were given to the varying social classes in Trinidad, surrounded topics in World history, Greek democracy and philosophy, the history of slavery, and the history of the Caribbean.
After the Second World War, the British Colonial Office intimated that colonies should proceed towards political independence similar to federal systems in the Confederation of Canada, which created the Dominion of Canada, in the nineteenth-century. The emerging nationalist movements of the 1930s embraced these plans for the betterment of the colonies in the British West Indies.
At a conference held in Montego Bay, Jamaica in 1948 the declared common aim was for the achievement of "Dominion Status" (which meant constitutional independence from Britain) for all the colonies of the West Indies. In 1958, a West Indies Federation emerged out of the British West Indies. Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago were the dominant players. Two political parties were formed – The West Indies Federal Labour party lead by Grantley Adams of Barbados and Norman Manley of Jamaica; and the Democratic Labour Party (led by Manley's cousin, Sir Alexander Bustamante). Most political parties in the various territories aligned themselves with one of two.
The PNM (lead by Williams affiliated West Indies Federal Labour Party) several opposition parties (the People's Democratic Party, the Trinidad Labour Party and the Party of Political Progress Groups) aligned themselves with the DLP, and soon merged to form the Democratic Labour Party of Trinidad and Tobago. The PNM had poor results in the 1958 Federal Elections and subsequent disagreements with the Governor General of the Federation (Lord Hailes) angered Williams who was further disenchanted when Bustamante withdrew Jamaica from the Federation. Trinidad and Tobago was now saddled with the responsibility of having to provide 75% of the Federal budget while having less than half the seats in the Federal government.
This resulted in the PNM council’s withdrawal of Trinidad and Tobago from the Federation in January, 1962 and the subsequent dissolution of the Federation by the British Government. In another of his famous speeches Williams was quoted as saying, ‘one from ten leaves nought’. Williams and the People’s National Movement – PNM proceeded to gain independence for Trinidad and Tobago in 1962 and dominated its postcolonial politics.
He became Chief Minister in the country’s first party government, and, with the achievement of internal self-government in 1959, he served as Premier. The PNM won the December 1961 elections by a landslide. Williams became Prime Minister of the colony and then of the new nation upon its achieving independence in August 1962. Under his leadership Trinidad and Tobago became a Republic in 1976. As Prime Minister, Williams practiced what was called “pragmatic socialism,” which stressed social services, improved education, and economic development through the cautious attraction of foreign investment capital.
Williams was the author of a number of books, among which were The Negro in the Caribbean (1942), Capitalism and Slavery (1944), History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago (1962), British Historians and the West Indies (1964), Inward Hunger: The Education of a Prime Minister (1969), and From Columbus to Castro: The History of the Caribbean, 1492–1969 (1970).
The Economic Aspects of the Abolition of the Slave Trade and West Indian Slavery, was both a direct attack on the idea that moral and humanitarian motives were the key facts in the victory of British abolitionism, and a covert critique of the idea common in the 1930s, emanating in particular from the pen of Oxford Professor Reginald Coupland, that British imperialism was essentially propelled by humanitarian and benevolent impulses. Williams’ argument owed much to the influence of C. L. R. James, author of The Black Jacobins, completed in 1938, which offered an economic and geostrategic explanation for the rise of British abolitionism.
Williams specialized in the study of the abolition of the slave trade. In 1944 his book Capitalism and Slavery argued that the British abolition of their Atlantic slave trade in 1807 was motivated primarily by economics—rather than by altruism or humanitarianism. By extension, so was the emancipation of the slaves and the fight against the trading in slaves by other nations. As industrial capitalism and wage labor began to expand, eliminating the competition from slavery became economically advantageous.
Before Williams the historiography of this issue had been dominated by (mainly) British writers who generally were prone to depict Britain's actions as unimpeachable. Indeed, Williams' impact on the field of study has proved of lasting significance. As Barbara Solowand Stanley Engerman put it in the preface to a compilation of essays on Williams, which is based on a commemorative symposium held in Italy in 1984, Williams "defined the study of Caribbean history, and its writing affected the course of Caribbean history… Scholars may disagree on his ideas, but they remain the starting point of discussion… Any conference on British capitalism and Caribbean slavery is a conference on Eric Williams."
Williams sent one of 73 Apollo 11 Goodwill Messages to NASA for the historic first lunar landing in 1969. The message still rests on the lunar surface today. Williams wrote, in part, "It is our earnest hope for mankind that while we gain the moon, we shall not lose the world."